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The Trees cover

I Am Radar cover

I Am Radar cover

It is not the case that great art never adds up to fit our playpen aesthetics. The Tempest certainly adds up, in the mind and to our ears, though we may never plumb its soundings. But King Lear does not, and that which is unplumbable in Lear sounds jagged to us groundlings; the sound of the glaring unfitness of part to whole of Lear, exuding from the inner planets it gives voice to, draws blood: draws blood today, it is very modern; we think we maybe recognize it better than they did, and indeed, though it is not exactly to our credit, this might even be the case. Surely we have come into an era, which is to say we inhabit a planet, where Truth and Beauty no longer embrace in a chymical marriage which we are enjoined to submit to: disobedience to old canons does not take much wisdom on our part, merely eyes innocent of expectation. Being beauteous has become a form of sarcasm, though our nostalgia for epiphanic moments, when the expression of some concinnity we can almost grasp seems almost graspable, does seem to continue to lurk. What we can grasp we can understand as beautiful. One doth love a Nazi Helmet on the mantel.

But I think we readers know the truth (we certainly act as though we do): that as a civilization our sense of order has become increasingly detached from our sense of reality; and that by exposing the sometimes penetrative artifices of story to twenty-first century glare, fantastika as a whole has done us the service of making it strobically clear that something ungraspable by the old tools is happening to us. That the penetrations of story told by humans are fleeting. That well-knit stories that attempt to convey the unfathomable are stories that make us nervous: because to call the world inherently unfathomable is to miss the point that it's not that the world is or is not unfathomable. The point is that Homo sapiens is not tooled to get the point.

So when some tale presents to us something unfathomable made to look good, we tend to feel we're being conned, even if the work of art we're experiencing has the power to wound us: because we do not feel in our hearts, any longer, that the pain of being human is redemptive. Aeschylus's great phrase pathei-mathos—which translates as "We suffer into knowledge"—seems no longer of worldly use. As Brian Evenson would say, if he thought it worthwhile saying anything so obvious, even savage non-Scripture-sanctioned Aeschylean pain doesn't bring us through. Our loss is beyond conceiving. So what do we do with Ali Shaw and The Trees, whose unwoundingly handsome linear narrative leads us sonorously to a heavily signalled but unexplained climax, a happening we are clearly meant to apprehend as chthonically unfathomable, while at the same time the text clearly nudzhes us to experience a kind of planetary good vibe in the presence of the Whatsit that ends the tale? Where does it take us in 2016 that The Trees feels goodish?

We are seemingly somewhere in southern England just upstairs from now. Abjectly self-obsessed and conspicuously passive-aggressive Adrien Thomas, whose wife is in Ireland getting some desperately needed psychic fresh air at a conference, buys crap food at a takeaway and settles down to another suburban night of ressentient foetor. We note that he is not an alpha male (we will end up noting this lots, because everybody he meets mentions the fact, as does he). Awoken by an irruption of full-grown trees through his house, which just miss shafting him to death, he soon discovers that what seems to be a magically reconstituted climax-commmunity forest has thrust suddenly upwards into the whole of England, destroying civilization and killing almost everybody; mild queries about the rest of the world go unanswered. Before he manages to starve to death, being far too morose to tap his inner Crusoe and look for some sheep to chew, Adrien runs across tough-minded vegetarian gardener Hannah and her son. Because Adrien is such a pain in the ass, they take a little while to bond, but they eventually embark together on a trek westward: first to find her woodwise brother in maybe Devon (Shaw mysticatingly obscures the geography of the tale); and then, after he is found shot dead and Hannah in turn kills his murderer, onward to the sea, where a shipbuilder befriends them and ferries them across the sea to Ireland in a rowable raft, so Adrien can find his wife, though he's sure she's left him for good this time. Once in Ireland, with an English-speaking Japanese girl now in tow, the trekkers find Adrien's wife, who is sleeping with the MBA-type in control of an encampment near the hotel she'd been staying at before civilization ended. There are scenes of emotional and physical violence. Those who should belong with those members of the cast they want to belong with end up belonging with them.

If this were all there were to The Trees, with food and safe lodgings cropping up just in time again and again and Cozy-Catastrophe coincidences that allow the cast successfully to traverse a fatally transformed landscape and the Irish Sea too in search of emotional closure for a dweeb, then few would finish reading the thing, despite some pretty good sentence-craft, which aspires to a tone of almost churchly "significance" whenever we need to be reminded that the crew is not on a quest but a pilgrimage. Throughout there have been hints of another level of story, as conveyed in part through Hannah's intermittent sighting of what she identifies as a kirin, a fabulous composite creature out of Japanese mythology, in this case weirdly unicorn-like. Consistent with the tale's overall muteness about the world it's set in, she tells no one that the forest is fey. Similarly, Adrien is singularly reticent about describing the fragile stick-like figures—cleverly and winningly described by Shaw—who dog his steps imploringly, or the enormous trunk which seems to be the base of a throne and which the little people seem to want him to mount, or the conjoining of all this and a midden of props and masks left on a stage where Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream had clearly been performed just before the forest came. Ah, the reader is perhaps expected to think: not only in the end does the planet make sense, but our art has made it so.

Screw that for a lark. Nowadays is not a good time to be told of mysteries at the heart of things we cannot quite explain though the Bard twigged long ago. As The Trees advances to its climax, through passages of bravura synaesthesia I wish had been located in a better book, we begin to realize that nothing is going to keep The Trees from ending up with the anointment of a metamorphosed Gaia-embodying Adrien as the foreordained King of the Forest, and that he has been selected by spirits who know how to distinguish him from bad alpha males. After all, as one character says of some buggeration alpha early on, "Men like him are what's wrong with the world." Hence, one guesses faute de mieux, the elimination of most of the population of the world to make room for Adrien, though it is severely disappointing to realize that by not actually repeating the bromide Shaw thinks he's limning something unfathomable in his sharply crafted but cognitively vacuous climax. Even so, it's pretty hard not to get the point: because the transformation of Adrien into Gaia-guy in the deep chambers of the world, entwined into the roots of a rather Yggdrasil-like big tree which will be his throne, is visibly risibly consequential on his not being alpha. So what we get is a connect-the-dots narrative that climaxes in unspeakable sententiae which because they are not exactly spoken we are meant to think are true. But they are not. They are not even unlikely enough to give us pause. The Trees is a sermon with no aleph.

And there's something else. If the need to wipe out male hegemony over the planet explains the irruption of the forest, as it seems we are meant to think, why then do all the chthonics of the world replace the old king with another man, even one who is abject? Why not Hannah, the earth-loving multitasking mother who keeps him from starving and guides him onward and defends the world? Because she's just a woman?

Enough cod concinnity. In his second novel, I Am Radar, Reif Larsen takes a similarly afflicted planet and shakes it a lot, though it may be that nothing happens to the planet as a consequence; in a sense the text is not SF at all, as nothing works, the chatter of chaos is never smoothed over into one of our tales. There is no Gaia Inside whose workings we cannot plumb but who gives us suck. It is not even certain that Larsen's populous doppleganger-jangly cast genuinely thinks that the dramas it creates are in any sense consequential, which is to say descriptive; and he knifes with ironies his recounting of that cast's attempts to create puppet-drama "happenings" calculably isomorphic with sweet-spots of trauma from World War Two to around 2010. Isomorphism chez nous is, of course, like orderliness in general when used to pretend to tool the workings of the world: it is an acte gratuit. Read backwards or forwards (the black and/or white protagonist's name is of course a palindrome), I Am Radar rocks either way into asymptote: the closer it gets to describing the world, and the closer Radar gets to finding himself, the more abyssal becomes the gap between "reality" and our Uncanny Valley proximals. The only thing that adds up in I Am Radar is a sweet similarity of failures.

Stories beckon, get sweetly told though snared in aphorisms expressive of the kind of certainties the novel will never achieve: "When you can't find something it may as well not exist." "If the eye belongs to no one, what does it see?" "If it is not documented, then it never happened." ". . . a flock of puppets that all move in conversation, no matter where they are in the world." Larsen himself, of course, knows better than his wit; knows that the perception matrices of Homo sapiens are too coarse to persuade the earth to converse with the quantum-entanglement paranoias dreamt of by the children of Thomas Pynchon. His mind is in fact perhaps too clear to make his stories sticky enough for us to pretend to believe them: which is a virtue in philosophy, but may be the central dilemma of I Am Radar: that it knows all too clearly it's getting nowhere with its bird puppets and their coarse miming of world catastrophes.

The first story is mainly Radar, born mysteriously black in New Jersey to white parents, the mother sectionably OCD, the father muted by lifelong exile from Bosnia whose killing fields he had escaped before the end of the War. It may be that his mother had slept with a black friend at the right time to become pregnant with him; but very probably not. The young Radar is subjected to a procedure by a soi-disant group of secret masters in Norway who are attempting to control (or at least coercively understand) the world through the creation of dramas enacted by puppets (who could be humans who have been thoroughly understood) and telepathic robot birds who dance the music of the spheres (or not). The procedure, which has been arranged by Radar's mother, turns him white, or whitterish. He becomes a piece, or pieces, on the board of the fake world drama.

The second and third stories pendulously weigh I Am Radar down, one assumes as a deliberate demonstration of the failure of human tales to entangle properly. The first of these follows the childhood and young manhood of Miroslav in Bosnia, who as Otik takes part in the final sequence of the tale. The second traces intriguingly the life a century or so ago of a French aristo in what would become Cambodia, and of his insanely calibrated son, whose participation in one of the Secret Master puppet-and-bird dramas in Pol Pot's Cambodia might be understood as a wry demonstration of the failure of story to do more than glancingly strobe the world; except for the anguish caused.

The various strands of the novel, which are not so much strands as Nudes Ascending Separate Staircases like puppetized Edweard Muybridge women, climax along the Congo River, which is explicitly evoked to echo Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. A Professor Funes joins Lars (the main Norwegian), Otik and Radar, all here unseemly met. Like Jorge Luis Borges's Funes the Memorious, Larsen's Funes cannot forget anything. He leads the Whole Mad Crew up the river to his library, which may have all the books in the world; but rebels burn it down before the clash of protagonists can reach its labyrinthine antrum, where it might have all added up in the True Name which is the aleph. But Larsen cannot, or will not, allow his portrait of an understood world to add up. The ending is slingshot:

 Funes had reached the flames. He paused. The birds overhead, waiting as one.

"The show," said Lars. "It's now."

But the only apocatastasis of the world is flames.

It may not be the case that Brian Evenson has ever thought of himself as having much in common with Robert Aickman, and his pre-oxidized badlands are hugely different from the fake acculturated English landscapes into which the older writer thrust his characters, where they disintegrated. But it is impossible to read the subliminally linked range of tales assembled in A Collapse of Horses without some flicker of recognition. I've argued in the past that the central Aickman "strange story" dramatizes something like a midlife crisis in its protagonist's course, a period when the ex-hero's psyche has become a kind of Waste Land through which the archetypes that figured and inspired the exploits of his youth now jostle sourly for advantage. If he (rarely she for Aickman) is to survive the crisis, he must somehow transform these clamorous, anxiety-inducing images of internecine warfare of self against self into a kind of chivalry; he must become a Round Table so he can talk to himself again, and go forth sounding like a man. (I've been once again paraphrasing an already much revised piece from 1985.) Evenson's characters are often halfway to disintegration before they start with us, and not infrequently we meet them either in prison, or in hospital, or in some other coercive keep, physical or psychic. If there is a jailer, we somehow suspect that the protagonist is gazing into a mirror. If there is a weapon, of any sort, he will desanguinate.

The first and last stories assembled here—"Black Bark" and "The Blood Drip"—are like buttresses holding the whole together: the twinning; the disintegration of the hero of a thousand faces; the mocking flow of blood that eats everything dead; the ghost that is the person who thinks he is still alive. The longest story in the book, "The Dust", is perhaps slightly miscalculated, as it is too exactly predictable to hold the attention for 45 pages. "Past Reno", which is as close to Aickman as you can get in Nevada, is a work of genius:

No, he needed to get [the box of his dead father] as far from him as he could. He would take it back to Utah, back to where it came from.

Or maybe not, he thought a few hours later, well into the drive and recognizing nothing as familiar, completely unsure where he was. Maybe not as far as Utah, but certainly somewhere past Reno. That would have to be far enough.

There is no colour in these stories, and hardly an image. Taken separately, they can seem as cold as ice. But allowed to touch each other horribly, they burn. The collection as a whole comes as close to adding up as the world is likely to allow to those who have lost their way. Each story says what the world does to those who drift into its claws without a lie to cling to.

After the flame has died.

John Clute ( has been writing SF and fantasy criticism since the 1960s, and has been involved in writing encyclopedias since the 1970s. His novel Appleseed (2001) was a New York Times Notable Book in 2002. His most recent book is a new collection, Stay, which includes both criticism and short fiction. He is currently working on the third edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.
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